Highlands Ranch — Wow. After what was an all-out slugfest between back-to-back state champion ThunderRidge and upset-minded Cherry Creek on the hardwood the night of Jan. 6, that’s all that could …
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Highlands Ranch — Wow.
After what was an all-out slugfest between back-to-back state champion ThunderRidge and upset-minded Cherry Creek on the hardwood the night of Jan. 6, that’s all that could be said.
ThunderRidge wunderkind Andrew Crawford was fouled on a 3-point shot as the clock hit triple zeroes in regulation and coolly buried all three free throws to force overtime. But Cherry Creek somehow, someway managed to overcome the massive momentum swing and prevail 83-81 on the road in a nonleague thriller.
“I’m proud of how valiantly they fought,” 27th-year ThunderRidge coach Joe Ortiz said of his Grizzlies, who graduated nine players from last year’s state title-winning team and don’t feature a single senior on this year’s squad. “It was a back-and-forth game.”
Ortiz’s young troops found themselves down 82-78 with time ticking away in overtime, but Kael Carney’s trey with 14 seconds left gave the Grizzlies a chance.
ThunderRidge fouled Trevon Chambers on the Bruins’ ensuing possession, putting the Cherry Creek senior on the free-throw line for two shots with 7 seconds to go. Chambers’ first attempt was true, but his second spit out of the cylinder. The Grizzlies snagged the rebound and raced down the court, but Carney’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer was just off the mark.
“They hit their shots down the stretch and we didn’t,” Crawford, a junior, said of how the final minutes of overtime unfolded. “It was a winnable game, though.”
If not for Crawford’s heroics and mental sturdiness in the closing moments of regulation, the game would have never seen overtime.
After Chambers connected on the back end of a pair of free throws to give Cherry Creek a 66-63 lead with 4 seconds left, Ortiz called a full timeout to set up one final play for the Grizzlies.
Ryan Doyle inbounded the ball to Crawford, who ran the length of the floor and loosed a running 3-point attempt from the right wing at the buzzer that missed.
But Crawford was fouled on the play.
And so, with only zeroes showing on the clock and the junior standing alone at the free-throw line with thousands of eyeballs on him, the situation was this: Miss a single free throw and the game’s over, or make all three to force overtime.
One by one, Crawford poured in all three shots — nothing but nylon.
“Every time I get to the line, I say, `In the park.’ I work out in the park all the time. I’ve shot thousands of free throws there. That’s where my mind goes when I’m shooting free throws. It was really nothing. It was a big moment in the game, but I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Crawford, whose 31-point masterpiece included ThunderRidge’s last nine points in regulation to keep his team close.
Apparently, Ortiz wasn’t nervous for his young marksman, either.
“He was 10-for-11 from the free-throw line in the state championship game last year. You see how he takes his time and he’s totally locked in. I was fully confident he would make all three,” Ortiz said of Crawford, who’s already sitting on college offers from Colorado, Colorado State, Denver and Rice, among others.
ThunderRidge (8-4) led by three on two separate occasions in overtime, but the Bruins (5-6) never went away.
Crawford’s and-one play right out of the gates spotted the Grizzlies a 69-66 lead, but Chambers quickly responded with a pair of free throws. Two Crawford free throws moments later gave ThunderRidge a 71-68 lead, but Cherry Creek’s Blake Purchase — the 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior who’s committed to play linebacker for Oregon’s football team — answered with two buckets of his own from the charity stripe.
A Robbie Bailey-to-Franck Belibi steal and score triggered a 10-2 run for the Bruins, forcing ThunderRidge to operate from behind once again.
Although they were down by several buckets with little more than a minute to play, the Grizzlies never conceded.
“We were down by 12 in the state championship game last year to start the game. We keep fighting back. That’s not about this team. That’s about this program. It’s who we are,” said Ortiz, who has guided the Grizzlies to 12 Final Four appearances, eight state championship games and four state titles in his time at ThunderRidge.
In regulation, the Grizzlies and Bruins traded blows the whole way — the contest featured nine ties and 13 lead changes.
Charlie Spann finished with 18 points for Thunder Ridge. Ulysses Brown and Tommy Wight each scored nine points, Carney had eight and Christian Simenthal added five.
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